Reviewed: The Bald Prima Donna

Caroline Gaunt hails one of the most immersive plays so far

Bald Prima Donna

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I made my way John’s-wards to watch The Bald Prima Donna. Ionesco’s plays rival Beckett for sheer impenetrable absurdity, and the risk is that the audience will spend the entire hour scratching their heads in confusion.

A Tree in a Teacup Theatre Company took a huge risk, but it certainly paid off – the resulting production was a rip-roaring hour of madness which managed at the same time to be hilariously funny.

Firstly I should say that if looking for enlightenment as to what, exactly, Ionesco was on about, this is probably not the production for you –the cast wallow from the outset in the inherent madness of the script rather than battling against it and trying to create anything with a sense of normality.

In this topsy-turvy world, it is Rebecca Wallbank who is the standout performer, handling the wordy monologues and rapid mood-swings to which Mrs Smith is prone with consummate skill and maintaining a delightfully exaggerated clipped, upper-middle class tone throughout which really enhanced the obvious satire in the script. Henry Yorke as the Fire Chief was another outstanding actor, utterly compelling during the story-telling scene – which is no mean feat considering the stories are essentially stream-of-consciousness narratives.

The few minor issues of lack of tonal variation were covered up by the maniacal nature of the script, which does not demand that there is reason behind lines being shrieked or delivered completely in monotone – it’s all just part of the madness. I must commend director Matt Robinson for his commitment to the absurdity in the play – the lack of coherence and reasoning does take a little getting used to but by the climatic scene is mind-blowing.

Everything, from programme to tickets right through to final bows was made to bend to the madness of The Bald Prima Donna, rendering the whole experience one of the most immersive I have seen in Durham so far.

The choice of setting was also inspired – although I was initially dubious about the use of St John’s Chapel, Robinson managed to create a scene of intimate cosy domesticity which whilst providing a stark contrast to the events occurring around it, also offered jarring reminders of the menace underlying the facade of respectability (a knife in Wallbank’s hair, for example).

The Bald Prima Donna is not an easy or accessible play and to take it on at all deserves praise. However, to create and genuinely enjoyable piece of theatre out of this mesh of disjointed phrases and observations is a huge challenge and one that A Tree in a Teacup were more than a match for. In short, although by far one of the most ridiculous evenings I’ve ever spent at the theatre, also certainly one of the most successful.